Understanding the Science of Email Subscriber Acquisition and Retention

Email iconAlmost every form of online marketing involves a strategy to capture leads or subscribers. It's one of the fundamental ways a blogger or a business website owner manages to sell his products and services. In the long term, subscribers may turn into your regular customers depending on the type of services and products you're offering through your website. Seasoned players use human psychology to build their subscribers base, at a rapid pace. It's an art that's mixed with technical know how to create an effective subscriber acquisition channel that's continuously optimized and tested to get the best possible results. If you're struggling to build a healthy email list, then this comprehensive guide is written just for you. No matter which email marketing solution you're using, the tips discussed below are equally applicable on all of them. Let's see some of the core principles and the best practices of acquiring email subscribers for our content, services, and products. Remember, it takes some time to master email list building routines.

Email icon From the very beginning, use a premium email marketing solution to leverage all of its powerful features. It takes a lot of research and analysis to build a truly profitable email list. Let's start the process.

Prospects' Profile Creation

Demographic data captured from various web analytics tools provide us with tons of information about the type of visitors who're spending more time browsing the content on our website. If your current analytics system is lacking demographic data, you must consider an alternative as soon as possible.

Through this valuable data, you can come up with a generic visitor profile that appreciates your content or services. To get a clearer picture, the data set should be large enough to get clear trends about each and every attribute. This includes their average age, gender, purchasing power, education, geographic location, and much more.

Apart from regular demographic data manipulation, you should also consider analyzing psychographics data that gives us more useful insights about visitors' behavior, attitude, and their purchasing pattern.

Capturing this data is not easy and it requires some extra efforts to gather these extremely important statistics. One simple way is to run surveys both for the existing subscribers and for the new visitors. The other option is to hire an agency or to buy specialized software. Popular email marketing services provide facility to capture such type of data for optimizing the campaigns.

Creating a subscriber's generic profile helps you strategize and design the acquisition system, more effectively. Businesses and leading blogs in their niche do extensive research about their visitors and subscribers to build a profile for designing better lead capture systems.

Depending on the interest lists and services, you may segment the prospects data to come up with multiple profiles for each of the segments.

Interest Lists Segmentation

Based on the generic subscriber profiles you've created, you must carefully divide your content, products, and services into different groups. Business or niche blogs covering a wide array of information and products must go through this process to create a set of digital assets for each segment of subscribers.

It is quite common that a single subscriber profile shares more than one interest list segment. Each interest list may contain different types of digital assets viz., text, podcast, video, eBook, online service, and a downloadable product.

This whole exercise helps you determine the different types of acquisition channels that need to be designed for each segment of visitors.

Segmentation of interest lists also triggers an important routine of segmenting the subscribers' list. This saves you a lot of time and effort that you may spend trying to divide one massive list into different segments at a later stage.

Based on the created interest lists, if you're creating different segments of subscribers' lists right from the beginning, it will not only save your time and energy but will also help you target the subscribers in a much better way.

Subscriber Acquisition System Candidates

For each segment, relying on a single acquisition system is like trying to fish on the first location secured by you on the river bank. You must design different forms, links, and squeeze pages for each of the segment to find out the best performing combination.

Creating multiple versions lets you do the extensive split or A/B testing in an easy way. Do extensive tagging and other relevant procedures to capture important events for each design in your analytics dashboard.

Finding out the right combination of subscriber acquisition system is a time-consuming task and sometimes it may take several months before you get the perfect conversion system. Following are some of the common acquisition systems used on professional blogs and websites.

  • Custom email capturing form - If you're using a popular email marketing service, designing these custom lead capturing forms is a cakewalk. There are several types of email capturing forms that bring different results.

    Unless you plan to push the new subscribers into several other secondary conversion funnels, it's better to keep just one email field in the form. Otherwise, it's better to capture the first name of the subscriber as well.
  • Custom squeeze/resource pages - This is yet another powerful way to capture new subscribers. Resource pages are perfect candidates for embedding subscription forms at targeted places. I generally prefer to embed three subscription forms on a custom-designed resource page.

    One at the top, the second one in the middle, and last one right at the bottom of the page. An example is my 'About' page where I've strategically placed 3 subscription forms for the new visitors.
  • Top and bottom subscription bars - Another common way to acquire subscribers are to deploy customized collapsible bars either at the top or at the bottom of the web page.

    Hello Bar is one of the popular alternatives used by thousands of website owners. The advantage of using these bars is that they're unobtrusive and immediately attracts the attention of the visitor.
  • Popup subscription prompts - Although I'm not a huge fan of deploying popup subscription forms, but still I recommend it for select niches where the audience is not technically sound. It may not work in every case, but there's no harm in trying this option for your website.

    The success also depends on finding the correct settings for each of the attributes associated with your popup form viz., delay in time to load, modal status, appearance, placement, and much more.
  • Custom links and forms - And last but not the least are custom prompts, forms, and links designed from scratch. If you're technically sound or have the budget to hire a developer, you can come up with a unique solution to get the best possible conversions. I generally prefer the custom solution due to the level of flexibility it offers.
For each of the interest lists, you must create and test the related acquisition channel with different types of capturing tools mentioned above. My favorites among these are email forms and custom resource pages.

Both of them have given the best results in the various tests I've done on this blog. But, if something is working on one website doesn't necessarily means that it will work on the other one too. Extensive testing is the key here.

Trailing Subscribers' Activities

No matter how good sign up forms you design with high conversion rates, sustaining and continuously growing a healthy subscribers list is a big challenge for every professional website owner. Once a visitor is on your list, tracking and maintaining his interaction history is of utmost importance if the stakes are high when you've already spent enough in acquiring him.

Sometimes we don't pay much attention to the inflating subscriber acquisition costs when the existing email list is already shrinking with equally high unsubscribe rate. That's where monitoring and analyzing the activities of subscribers play a big role.

Very few applications or services provide subscriber level detailed activity trail to get meaningful insights.

If you're using a free solution like Google analytics, you can still track lot of important data through event tracking, custom dimensions, advanced segments, and multi-channel funnel visualization.

Normally, you can't use these techniques effectively if you're distributing stuff through a 3rd party system. But the simple solution is to create your very own newsletter through your WordPress blog. Then these techniques can be implemented right within the newsletter posts to get detailed insights about subscribers' activity.

Optimizing Existing Acquisition Systems

This is one of the most challenging parts of the entire subscriber acquisition and retention cycle. You've created subscribers' profiles, have designed killer sign up systems, and are also gathering the activity details. And, now what? At this stage, there are two important challenges in front of you.

First, to keep the conversion rate high and second to reduce the unsubscribe rate to the minimum. The latter part is more challenging than the former and requires careful analysis and planning. Here are some of the important metrics or signals that need to be monitored to filter out dead or stagnant subscribers.

  • Open rate - This metric can be used to identify both inactive and volatile subscribers that may press the unsubscribe button anytime.

    If a subscriber is not or rarely opening your delivered stuff, it's a red signal for you and you must analyze the associated activity data of that subscriber to find out the reasons of his low engagement.
  • Exit link click activity - One of the simplest metrics to examine how actively subscribers are engaging with the delivered content is to monitor the clicking activity for the exit links.

    Good email monitoring software can easily sort the subscribers' records based on the number of exit links clicked and that too on newsletter edition basis.
  • Unsubscribes - Once you start tracking nonperforming newsletter editions, you must analyze the structure, appearance, and content of the newsletters resulting in a high volume of unsubscribes.

    Sometimes, it's just the title of the newsletter that may repel the readers. This is a tricky thing and the ability to correctly analyze the probable reasons comes with experience.
  • Bounces - If a subscriber is regularly following different exit links within your newsletters that don't necessarily mean that he doesn't need your attention.

    You should extensively tag your landing pages where the subscribers may land through one of the exit links within the newsletter. Visits resulting in immediate bounce should be filtered and analyzed by you, once the campaign is over.
  • Returns - And last but not the least is your return-on-investment. There's no sense investing in building large email lists that give you no return. You must keep a check on the key events (extensive tagging of landing pages) that results in sales or revenue generation in some other form.
Here's an excellent guide to correctly analyze and monitor your email campaigns. Correctly analyzing subscribers' activity data takes both time and experience. But, that's the foundation of building optimized acquisition systems that not only grow your email list rapidly but also exhibit a very low unsubscribe rate.

Subscriber Retention Strategies

Getting back lost subscribers is a herculean task. This becomes more difficult if the unsubscribe event was triggered due to an irrelevant or poor quality of goods delivered to the subscribers.

Who determines the quality of the content you're including in your newsletter? A useful newsletter for one subscriber can be a piece of crap for the other.

Nowadays, almost every email marketing system (free or premium) provides unsubscribe notifications. Simple notifications have no value unless you act on them. What matters is your action once a subscriber leaves your list.

There are three types of subscribers those should be pursued to retain them for a longer period of time.

  • Dead email entries - Those subscribers whose subscription has not yet been confirmed or their open rate is zero is considered dead in an email list. If the volume of this segment is more than 10%, it's an alarming signal for you and you must take an appropriate action to reduce this count.
  • Low activity (volatile) subscribers - A segment of subscribers who rarely open your newsletter or never click any link within the content are considered volatile in nature. They have a high probability of unsubscribing from your list, anytime. This is the second segment that needs your attention.
  • Unsubscribed entries - And last but not the least are those subscribers who've already left your email list. Getting back this segment is most challenging. Although the acquisition rate for this segment is fairly low, still there's no harm trying to get them back.
All these three segments can be targeted in different ways. If implemented correctly, you can recover a large chunk of lost subscribers which can prove extremely profitable in the long run.

Often, the result of retention exercise is not that great but that's quite normal and there is no reason to get dejected in the absence of some good figures in your dashboard.

Here are some of the common email subscribers' retention strategies to recover stagnant or lost customers.

  • Recovering unverified entries - If you're using double opt-in for your email lists, you may notice good volume of unverified subscriptions. Instead of waiting for them to get verified within a few days, you must preemptively initiate the relevant process to get these entries, verified.

    Through your email marketing platform, you can easily extract the unverified emails from your account and can send a follow-up email to remind about the verification.
  • Sending special newsletter editions to volatile subscribers - This segment needs special attention due to their low or almost nil activity. Instead of waiting for them to press the unsubscribe button, you can craft special newsletter editions with some freebies to increase the engagement. This technique works effectively in turning these volatile entries into loyal subscribers.
  • Recovering lost subscribers - There are three common ways to follow up and to attempt recovery of a lost subscriber. Depending on the system you're going to use, results can vary and it's up to you to find the best option that works well for you. Here are these three common techniques.

    • Goodies with unsubscribe notification - You can design a custom unsubscribe notification email and can embed some freebies for the lost subscriber. Make sure the freebies are only accessible to verified subscribers. This way, you can neutralize a good percentage of unsubscribing attempts.
    • Diverting to custom unsubscribe notification page - Another effective strategy is to divert them to a custom landing page once they press the unsubscribe link. Place the unsubscribe button right at the bottom of that page and create optimized content sections or freebies sections to divert the subscriber's attention.

      This technique is not possible with a free solution like FeedBurner because it doesn't provide any kind of redirection facility for occasional unsubscribe events.
    • Sending a personal email - If the volume of unsubscribes is very low and manageable, you may try to email them individually with a link to a survey or asking the reason of their action. Getting a personalized email from you can persuade them to rethink about getting on your email list, again.
All the retention techniques discussed in this section can be easily implemented through a premium subscriber acquisition system provided you're fully utilizing the features offered by your email marketing solution.

If nothing works, it's better to look at the other side of the coin to find out the reason for high unsubscribe rate.

Over to You

All the methodologies discussed above may or may not be implemented on every website. If you're running a high-traffic business or niche website, it's imperative to invest in deploying all the important techniques discussed here to get a high-converting subscriber acquisition system that brings you more business.

If you're using some other popular techniques to pull more subscribers for your products and services, we would love to know about it. If you have any interesting case study or example of a powerful subscriber acquisition system, do share it with all of us.